Presented on Wednesday, September 17 at the Quarry Farm Barn. Harry Wonham is a Professor of English at University of Oregon and is the author of Mark Twain and the Art of the Tall Tale and Playing the Races: Ethnic Caricature in American Literary Realism, both published by Oxford University Press. He is also the author of The Short Fiction of Charles W. Chesnutt and has edited several volumes, including the Norton Critical Tales of Henry James and Criticism and the Color Line. He has taught as a Fulbright Scholar in Prague and in Mannheim, Germany.
It is no secret that Mark Twain was fascinated with money, and yet his relationship to wealth is marked by paradox. He began life in nearly abject poverty and often championed the poor and downtrodden in novels like Huckleberry Finn, but he married into vast wealth and publicly defended some of the richest and most powerful plutocrats of his era. He earned more money than any other nineteenth-century American writer, by far, and through bad investments and poor financial discipline he lost more money than any other writer, by far. He was America’s most hilarious critic of the high-rolling culture he named the Gilded Age, and his extravagant tastes and lifestyle epitomized the era’s excessive materialism. So what did wealth mean to Mark Twain Biographers have debated this question for over 100 years, some arguing that Twain’s brazen commercial inclinations fostered his artistic achievement, while others have contended that he squandered his talent in pursuit of material riches. This talk will consider what Mark Twain’s voluminous writings can tell us about his fascination with wealth.